What Obama got wrong about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism
By implying that these are the same, the president isn't doing U.S. Jews any favors. He's helping them evade realities they must understand to help Israel survive.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg that “my job in being a friend to Israel is partly to hold up a mirror and tell the truth.”
It was a noble aspiration, which Obama has made some effort to fulfill. He has warned starkly (if less starkly than some former Israeli prime ministers) that permanently controlling the West Bank imperils Israeli democracy and Israel’s legitimacy in the world. But he has also faced a campaign, led by his Republican foes and tacitly aided by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to depict him as hostile to the Jewish state, if not the Jewish people. And his effort to counter that campaign – which threatens his potential nuclear deal with Iran – has undermined the truth-telling he promised.
Barack Obama has grown very good at telling establishment-minded American Jews what they want to hear. Unfortunately, some of what they want to hear simply isn’t true.
Consider the president’s response when Goldberg asked him last week to demarcate “the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.” Obama replied that “a good baseline is: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire? And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind.” Given Goldberg’s question, the implication is that Obama thinks it’s “a problem” because it’s anti-Semitic, that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are the same thing.
Politically, Obama’s answer is shrewd. Inside the United States, anti-Zionism, while still marginal, is growing, primarily via the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which challenges not only Israeli control of the West Bank, but the very idea of Jewish statehood, which BDS activists claim denies Palestinians equality even inside Israel proper. The American Jewish establishment has responded by calling this rising anti-Zionism anti-Semitic. By essentially endorsing that analysis, Obama earns a little goodwill from American Jewish leaders, which he needs as he tries to convince them to support his prospective Iran deal.
But Obama’s analysis is wrong. Yes, anti-Semitism is rising, in Europe and perhaps the United States as well. Yes, many anti-Semites are also anti-Zionists. But anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are not the same. And by implying that they are, Obama isn’t doing American Jews any favors. He’s helping them evade realities they must understand to help Israel survive.
Conceptually, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are clearly distinct. Virtually all Palestinians are anti-Zionists. After all, Zionism is a Jewish national liberation movement that, while a great blessing for the Jewish people, has caused Palestinians great suffering. But that doesn’t make all Palestinians anti-Semites.
Take the case of Salim Joubran, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who serves on its Supreme Court. Joubran is clearly not an anti-Semite. To the contrary, many Israeli Jews rightfully consider his service on the court a source of pride. But Joubran refuses to sing "Hatikva," the great Zionist ode, and, like many prominent Palestinian Israelis, would probably prefer that Israel become a country that does not privilege Jews in its policies or public symbols. In other words, he’s an anti-Zionist without being an anti-Semite.
Don't forget the Jews
There’s also a long history of anti-Zionism among Jews. The Orthodox movement was once largely anti-Zionist because Orthodox leaders believed it violated Jewish law to restore Jewish sovereignty before messianic times. The Bund, a Jewish movement that advocated socialism and Yiddish rather than a return to the Land of Israel, enjoyed widespread support in both Eastern Europe and the United States in the early 20th century.
In the United States in recent years, this pre-existing anti-Zionism has gained new momentum primarily because of the actions of Israel’s government. By subsidizing massive settlement growth and publicly opposing a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines, Netanyahu has convinced a growing number of Americans that the two-state solution is dead and that a secular state between the river and the sea is the only fair option left. By demonizing Palestinian citizens of Israel and enacting discriminatory laws against them, Netanyahu and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have fueled a growing American debate about whether Israel can be a Jewish state and a liberal democracy at the same time.
The New York Times now routinely publishes opinion pieces questioning Zionism. And BDS activists have used this shift to garner converts to their anti-Zionist cause. As BDS leader Omar Barghouti declared late last year at Columbia University: “We’ve got to give credit to Netanyahu. Without him we could not have reached this far.”
Are some of the people drawn to this new anti-Zionism anti-Semitic? Sure. But to conflate the two, as Obama implicitly did, requires overlooking the fact that a disproportionate percentage of the new anti-Zionists are Jews. A University of Chicago student recently told me that he looked around during a BDS strategy session on campus and realized that Jews constituted a majority in the room. Jewish Voices for Peace, which supports BDS and welcomes anti-Zionists without being officially anti-Zionist itself, has grown from 600 members in 2011 to 9,000 today.
The wrong way to fight BDS
What we are witnessing among some young American Jews is a kind of neo-Bundism, a Jewish identity built not around Zionism but around the values of the activist left. And on campus, these left-wing Jews are making common cause with anti-Zionist Palestinians and with growing numbers of African-American, Latino, LGBT and feminist activists, all of whom see Zionism as incompatible with the egalitarian, anti-discriminatory principles they hold dear.
As a liberal Zionist who opposes BDS and still believes in a democratic Jewish state alongside a democratic Palestinian one, all this worries me a great deal. But branding it anti-Semitism is exactly the wrong way to combat it.
Where genuine anti-Semitism exists, it must be fought fiercely. But the rising anti-Zionism on America’s campuses does not stem primarily from anti-Semitism.
Yes, Israel suffers from a double standard. Anti-Zionist activists are not equally outraged by the abuses committed by post-colonial regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Iran. But that’s because the activist left is always more outraged by Western abuses than non-Western ones. The same left-wing types who now protest Israel more than they protest Saudi Arabia also protested apartheid South Africa more than they protested Idi Amin, protested the Iraq War more than they protested Saddam Hussein, and protested the World Bank’s economic policies more than they protested North Korea’s.
It’s impossible to understand either the antipathy Israel faces in some quarters of the American left or the adulation it receives on the American right without recognizing that Americans see Israel as a Western country.
Anti-Zionism is growing because Palestinians are convincing left-leaning young Americans that Israel is a Western country that, with American support, systematically oppresses its non-Western, Palestinian, population.
There is only way to effectively counter that argument: work to end the systematic oppression that Netanyahu has entrenched, and bring Israel closer to the principles of “freedom, justice and peace” enshrined in its declaration of independence.
What American Jews need from Obama is what he promised in 2008: truth-telling about the consequences of Israeli policy. Seven years later, one of those consequences is rising anti-Zionism on America’s campuses. Dismissing it as anti-Semitism is a good way of ensuring that it continues to grow.